Every part of the world has its own beauty. I’m pretty confident in that. Nevertheless, one of my family’s favorite places is the west coast of Vancouver Island. You can stand there on the beach—it might be raining but that doesn’t matter—and look out over the Pacific; there’s a great emptiness and you think maybe you can just make out Japan on the horizon. Then you turn your attention to the shoreline at your feet. You find it full of life and full of beautiful things: rocks, ground smooth by the sand, pieces of driftwood and bits of shells. It’s impossible not to pick up some of these things, turn to someone and say, “Look at what I’ve found. Aren’t these things amazing? Aren’t they beautiful?”
That’s what I want to do here. I don’t have a main point, just a handful of things.
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At the beginning of Advent the lectionary points us to the book of Jeremiah (33:14-16). We begin with a prophet’s hope. We’ve encountered Jeremiah already this fall. We’ve talked about the current of political chaos that flows beneath the whole book. In Jeremiah’s day Assyria’s power was waning while Babylon was waxing strong. Israel and Judah were overrun by these larger forces. If we flip back to the thirty-second chapter we get a sense of Jeremiah’s mandate within this political context. Just as Judah was being conquered Jeremiah buys a piece of land from his cousin. He makes the purchase in public. It must have seemed absurd: why buy land when before long your ownership won’t mean anything? But Jeremiah has hope. He has hope and he enacts it in the purchase of a piece of property. He isn’t just a prophet, he’s a performance artist.
As I understand it, performance art became a big deal in the 1960s. The basic idea was that the artist inserts herself or himself into the work. The point isn’t to create an object that can be bought and sold but the act of creation itself. Some performance artists made paintings with their whole bodies or placed themselves nude in odd places. In one famous work of performance art the artist had himself shot with a gun (Shoot, 1971). It was a pretty small caliber rifle. He could have hurt himself worse slices oranges, though I don’t think that’s the point. Whatever the ‘point’ was it couldn’t be disconnected from the immediate context of the piece, the intentionality of the artist and the effect it had on the viewer. That’s how performance art works.
So it seems to me that Jeremiah is a sort of performance artist. We are too, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Here in chapter 33:14-15 Jeremiah provides an explanatory plaque to go along with the piece: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” There it is, the stirrings of Advent: the hope of a people. From a stump that seems about to die, God promises a fruitful branch.
Jeremiah’s hope can be ours because we worship the same God, a God characterized by faithfulness, righteousness and love. What strikes me about Jeremiah’s hope is the difficulty of his circumstances. His hope isn’t that of the nicely-settled, it’s a hope from the other side of the lines. Jeremiah shows that God notices and cares. Jeremiah’s God is our God. Many of us face difficult circumstances. What we see in this passage from Jeremiah is that it is in just such places that God is faithful. So as we begin the journey of Advent, let’s allow the expectations and longings that stem from our lives to direct us toward God. One way to keep the spiritual aspect of the season alive and relevant is to take time each week or even every day to meditate on the story and to find ourselves in it. We can reflect on how the longings of Jeremiah’s audience mirror our own, and with them we can hope in God’s righteousness.
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In 1 Thessalonians, one of the oldest books in the New Testament, we see some of this hope at work in the life of Paul. We read several verses from the third chapter of that book (9-13). The backstory is that Paul cared deeply about the community of believers in that city and he wanted to visit them. He wanted to see how they were fairing but for some reason couldn’t. The letter we read doesn’t tell us why he couldn’t go. It does tell us that he sent his trusted friend Timothy. And it tells us that Timothy brought back a positive report.
Paul was overjoyed. He said as much in this letter, which he sent back to the Thessalonian community. He also offered a few words of wisdom (v. 12): “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” The seasons of Advent and Christmas are full of distractions. There are parties at work and school, worship services, gifts to buy, friends to host and family to visit. It can be chaotic. But what if we take Paul’s wisdom to heart? What if we make it our goal to grow in our love for each other and for all? What if we focus this Advent season on becoming ‘better lovers’? That idea will stick wont it—becoming better lovers? It’s one of those neat, simple things we can hold up and show each other. Look what I found . . . in the midst of the bedlam of the season.
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Just a bit ago I described Jeremiah’s work of performance art. Worship is similar. Worship is a piece of art that we create or perform together. The odd rituals find meaning the contextual layers of history and culture. As in most performance art the boundary between creator(s) and audience is pretty thin. It shifts. That’s true in worship. It’s also the case that worship can sometimes make us a bit uncomfortable. It’s even a bit offensive, asking us to confess our shortcomings, sit next to odd people, great those we may not like, listen to the words of ancient texts.
If worship is something like performance art, then communion is the center of the piece. When we share the bread and the cup we all perform communion. We foreshadow it when we great each other in the Peace of Christ and we echo it when we serve each other and when we share our joys and concerns. The early church practiced communion, or something much like it, on a regular basis. For them it wasn’t one of those rare, solemn commitments like marriage or baptism. It was a part of the weekly maintenance of faith.
One way to think of how communion does this is by exploring what it means to re-member Jesus. To re-member is to put something back together. Think of it this way: not long ago we observed Remembrance Day. We solemnly recalled the tragedy of war. We thought of those who died, those who were wounded and the families scarred by the emotional shrapnel of violence. On Remembrance Day nations do their best to re-member. They try to put a community back together by bringing those who died into the present. This national re-membering, with its accompanying rituals, shapes the national body. In recalling sacrifice and bravery, in naming enemies again, it unites.
Communion has a similar function, so similar that sometimes the two are in conflict. When we celebrate communion we are reminded of the humiliation and suffering of Jesus on our behalf. When we eat together we are transported to the moments of the formation of our community and the heart of the biblical drama. If re-membering is putting things back together, then in communion we are united with Jesus’ suffering and united as an ancient and global people. We perform this re-membering through our sharing of the bread and the cup. It is a spiritual celebration. It is also a political celebration.
Our world is terribly dis-membered. That is true despite our ability to travel and connect by phone. It is true despite social media, which is as much a cause of anxiety as it is a comfort. We remain dis-membered. In communion Christ is present with us as we, the members of his body, are drawn together through the power of the Spirit. We perform a work of art that encapsulates our being a body or, to shift images, a people. In being a people constituted by divine love we build peace. The alternative to the fallen powers of the world, whose calling cards are war and exploitation, starts with a community that shares bread and a cup. Just as the effects of national holiday are real and not imaginary, so are the effects of sharing in these elements. It not just talk about re-membering, it is its performance. And in such a performance Christ is present.